IN APPRECIATION OF PRESIDENT OBAMA
Traveling the world last year, we found the traditional verbal introduction from host nation citizens, to be a simple and genuinely inquisitive:
“Where are you from?”
When we said America (or the US, or the United States), we were never, not once, greeted by a put-down, an accusation, not even a raised eyebrow or disappointed look. Usually it was all smiles and appreciation – and in most cases, especially among those whose English was limited – our announcment invited a one-word response, typically accompanied by a broad smile, a thumbs-up or similarly positive gesture: “OBAMA!”
Of course I have never traveled the world before, but I doubt that any American President since Kennedy, and likely before, has ever been more loved and appreciated internationally than Barack Obama. The 44th American President put in over a million miles of global travel during his eight-year tenure, serving as his own Ambassador for his own citizen nation. The results spoke for themselves. Nobody on our travels felt the need to tell us to make America great again. Though some may have kept their counsel to themselves, the overwhelming impression we got, from Muslim countries through Buddhist and Christian and nominally secular ones, was that America was already great – thanks in large part to a President like Obama. Indeed, on more than one occasion when host citizens begged us to re-elect Obama, we had to explain that the American system does not allow for a third term as President. In some countries, where Presidents like to install themselves for life, that seemed a strange notion. (Of course you can still do that politically in the States: we just call it Congress.)
Say what you like about Barack Obama – and it’s a measure of the First Amendment’s strength that many Americans have done just that for the last eight years – but there has never, not in my thirty years of living in the United States, been a President who has treated his position with such dignity. The man has rarely allowed himself to be riled, has refrained from name-calling or other unPresidential outbursts, and has done his best to, if not quite love his domestic political enemies, then treat them with the respect that a truly Great Nation demands of its leaders. Yes, there have been disappointments and short-comings – he is only human, and he came into the Oval office young and relatively inexperienced in Congressional politics – but I say this, in rare capital letters for emphasis: BARACK OBAMA IS A GOOD MAN.
So on this day, at the end of his Presidency, I wish to put in writing my gratitude for his service, his leadership, his courage and his fortitude, his compassion and his kindness, and for his innate humanity. I wish to thank his wife, Michelle, for being the absolute model of a First Lady, and though I regret that we do not now have a First Husband as I had expected and fully anticipated, I am confident that day will come soon, and I desire to believe that Michelle’s impeccable service will have served, in its own small way, to improve some white people’s perceptions of their fellow Americans.
A week that started with the holiday celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who campaigned not just for racial equality but for racial harmony, and ends with the Inauguration as President of a man who is at best a race-baiter and at worst an outright racist, would be monumental by any standards. For me, it is additionally marked by a journey, occupying the three days in-between, down to Memphis, which included a night in an Albany Airport hotel, getting out ahead of an ice storm, where I watched one PBS documentary analyzing the first four years of the Obama Presidency, and another detailing the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by a man who felt betrayed by Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves. It would seem possible, under these circumstances, to conclude that the United States of America exist in name only, that for the large step forward that we took with the election of President Obama, twice, we are in the process of taking two larger steps backwards.
There is, indeed, a part of me that fears as much – but the visit to Memphis helped put me more firmly in line with our outgoing President’s insistence that this country continues to move forward, in small increments that sometimes go unnoticed, and that race relations have improved in recent years. As I explained to my audience at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis on Wednesday night, when I took my first trip to the City I was with a band on tour; we parked the RV at Graceland and visited Graceland the next morning, because that’s what you did in Memphis. On my second trip, around 1991, I produced a television piece on Linda Gail Lewis. She was doing her best to overtake her brother Jerry Lee in number of spouses; what I recall as husband number seven (though perhaps it was only number five) happened to be an Elvis impersonator, which must have caused some consternation around the Thanksgiving table with brother Jerry, who enmity for his former fellow Sun Records artist is legendary. Rather unpleasantly, said Elvis impersonator was an open racist; confusing matters further, he was also a Yankee – or a “Damn Yankee” as he reminded me they were called in the South – which threw into question any initial suppositions about prejudice above and below the Mason-Dixie line. Suffice to say that next time I was in touch with Linda, she was on to her next husband.
I didn’t return to Memphis until the summer of 2012, when our family engaged on a full-throttle nationwide road trip en route to and from Burning Man. We parked up and pitched tent at Graceland, but as well as the tour of Elvis’ home, we took in Sun Studios and the relatively new arrival in town, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, built on the former site, and to near enough the original specifications, of the legendary Stax label and studios, with a souvenir shop/record store right where the original Satellite store had once stood on East McLemore. I stood in that room at Sun and summoned up the ghosts of all the legends who had recorded there, crowding them in on top of each other in my mind as I posed for a picture at Elvis Presley’s microphone – but I spent longer over at Stax, where the museum pieces go way back to give a detailed history of American black history and music that led to the sound we know as “soul,” and where my older son took a “fanboy” picture of me drooling over Booker T. Jones’ Hammond M-3. After we traveled to Kansas and its American Jazz Museum, and to the Cleveland Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and for all that I’ve subsequently been through various Smithsonians in DC, I concluded that Stax is the greatest museum of black American music in America – which, by extension, makes it arguably the greatest museum of American music, period.
I came back to Memphis fourth time in 2013, on my own, as part of my 13-state road trip researching my Wilson Pickett biography. There I interviewed three of the surviving musicians to have recorded with Wilson (Floyd Newman, Marvell Thomas, and the late Wayne Jackson), along with his former partner Dovie Hall, newly ensconced there to be close to her attendant first son. I had enough time to book an Air B’n’B for a few days and fully explore the city, which included attending a Mavis Staples concert in nearby Germantown, running a half-marathon distance along the Mississippi river, watching a Crystal Palace-Liverpool cup match in an Irish bar, eating at vegan cafes, drinking at craft beer saloons, and persuading a record shop to stay open at the end of an icy day that had seen the rare closure of Memphis schools, so that I could spend money on old vinyl. I made a couple of friends amongst other music journalist/authors, and as much as anything, I noticed how the city appeared so much more integrated than on my previous visits. That notion felt all the more important given that on this visit I also took in the relatively new addition to the city’s cultural institutions, the National Civil Rights Museum, installed at the Lorraine Motel. The Motel was, famously, a hang-out spot, in happier times, for the multi-racial Stax musicians who would have been barred from socializing together in many other spots in town back in the early 1960s (though it was not, despite what it says there, the place where Steve Cropper and Wilson Pickett wrote “In The Midnight Hour,” a session that actually took place at the integrated Holiday Inn). The Lorraine was also, of course, and much more infamously, the scene of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. That makes for at least three spots in town where you can stop and soak up the history that too place under one’s very feet – and if the recording rooms at Sun and Stax might invite tears of spiritual appreciation, it’s almost impossible not to stand in King’s final bedroom and shed tears of pain.
Nothing can undo the events of history, and if 2015 taught us anything, it’s that we can’t predict the future either. But we can control our present, and my stay this past week in Memphis gave great reason for hope. I hesitate to speak with authority and, as always these days, I acknowledge my perspective as one of inherent white privilege – but, at least on the surface, at least in the city center, at least for tourists and especially for cultural tourists, Memphis feels like a city with a certain amount of ingrained racial harmony. I have, after all, experienced many American towns that feel fully segregated (from Princeton in the 1980s through much of Brooklyn and the Bronx in the early 1990s on to Nashville in 2015), but in Memphis, there is at least a sense of progress. I pause, so as not to be too affirmative: the local newspaper is hardly short on stories of inequities in schooling and justice, and perhaps I should also note that after my reading at Stax, when I took in a couple of bars on Beale Street to chill out, of the two bands I saw perform, one was all-white, the other all-black. But in that case, it’s also worth pausing to acknowledge that Memphis Congressman, Democrat Steve Cohen, by his very name, indicates the voting public’s willingness to elect a Jewish man, and one who came straight out last weekend in support of fellow Congressman John Lewis, announcing that, in solidarity, he too would be boycotting today’s Inauguration; similarly, I should note that my observations about the musicians must be tempered by the integration on Beale Street of the two bars’ staff and audience.
How much did President Obama have to do with all of this? Everything and nothing. The sad legacy of his eight-year tenure is that it unearthed the barely latent racism in this country that had remained subdued as long as people of color only rose to positions of power in sport and entertainment, not to the Oval Office. But the positive legacy of his tenure, speaking strictly here about social interaction, is that he led by example. Those who could look back on his residency at the White House, on the civility of his personality, on the magnificent public display of a largely equal marriage, and still find reasons to jeer, reveal much more about their own tendencies than those of the man they choose to revile for his color. And so, as Obama worked to lead the nation forward, so a city like Memphis moved forward. Not perfectly, for sure: there is, after all, no such thing as perfection in anything other than a fleeting moment we sometimes choose to elongate in our memory. But it moved forwards all the same.
The Americans I know will, by any means necessary, defend those forward gains over coming months and, if necessary, the full four years. Overseas readers should be in no doubt about that. Today, however, I choose to honor my President of the last eight years with my own boycott of the incoming President, whose legitimacy as a politician I can never recognize but more troublingly, whose legitimacy as a democratically-elected leader has to be called into question, by reasons of popular vote and interfering tactics from both our domestic FBI chief and that of the Russian government. Today, Friday February 20, I will therefore just get on with my own work, while I listen to great American music. (Sadly, that can not include Sam Moore, a marvelous man and a truly magnificent soul survivor, but one whose legacy would have been perfectly intact without performing in Washington, D.C. in support of the President-Elect yesterday.) I will not watch TV, I will not listen to the radio, I will not be provoked into tweet wars or facebook arguments. This does not mean I will wear the “cloak of invisibility” that allows fascism to gain ground upon a scared society, only that, today, I will not give Russia’s Man In Washington the attention he craves. Honor thy history, keep the faith, and… peace.